Phillip Sage:
Dedicated to the Fine Arts

By Patricia B. Mitchell, April 1975.

Phillip Sage

Phillip Sage at Antoine's.

Phillip Anthony Sage is a New Orleans printmaker. His best-known etchings are character studies such as Watermelon Man and Buggy Ride. He has printed between thirty-six and forty different editions of etchings.

Sage was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in January 4, 1942 to parents of Polish ancestry. His surname was originally Saj (pronounced “sigh”), but during World War II some people mistook Saj for a Japanese name, so the family had it changed to Sage.

After attending public schools in Manchester and Bedford, Sage attended St. Anselm's College, where he earned a degree in economics and business administration. Next he attended Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture in New York City for one and a half years before joining the Coast Guard. He was stationed in New Orleans for three years, after which he returned to Cooper.

During this period, Sage developed an interest in printmaking under the direction of Charles Klabunde. He also worked with Michael A. Vaccaro and Roy DeCarava in photography. In May 1971 Sage was graduated from Cooper Union. On September 1, 1971 he moved to New Orleans “specifically to work in the fine arts, either as a painter or printmaker.”

Community Standard: As a child, were you interested in art?

Sage: Oh yes, very definitely. I was drawing when I was four and I was selling my art when I was eight years old.

Community Standard: To whom were you selling?

Sage: My neighbors. I was just doing drawings of animals and stuff, mostly in colored pencils. I remember I wet them like watercolors. When I was about ten years old, I won a second prize in the national Buster Brown coloring contest. I won a portable radio.

Phillip Sage

“When I was about ten years old, I won a second prize in the national Buster Brown coloring contest.”

Community Standard: If you enjoyed art, why did you attend college to earn a degree in economics and business administration?

Sage: I was interested in going to college to study art, but I didn't have any money. I read an article one day in American Artist magazine. It said, “Get an art degree at St. Anselm's College.” I said, “Hey, it's three miles away. I can live at home.” So I went.

After the first year, when they didn't have any more art program, I didn't feel like throwing away that whole year, being a very conservative New Englander. My father said, “Take the best major. You know artists starve.” So I stayed at St. Anselm's and took a degree in economics. Also, during part of high school and part of college, I took the Famous Artists Illustration Course out of Westport, Connecticut.

While I was at college I started a little business and supported myself all the way through school. I was doing signs, layouts, newspaper ads and portraits. By the time I was a senior, I got asked to leave the house because I had turned the whole cellar into a business. I had an office downtown just behind the nurses' dormitory and I had a three-year-old Thunderbird for skirting around the campus. I really had it made! I really had things going my way up there, but then I decided I needed to go to school, because I realized I had absolutely a zilch background as far as art goes.

One of my instructors was a graduate of Cooper Union. He suggested that I try Cooper because it's a free institution. If you get in, it's free tuition and it's a very fine school. I made application, and gained entrance.

Community Standard: Your education at Cooper Union was interrupted. How did that happen?

Sage: I got threatened with the draft, so I jumped into the Coast Guard. I came to New Orleans in July of '66. I was the Admiral's aide and public information officer. I spent three years at the Custom House. It was a really soft, busy job, but a very nice job … a good way to learn about New Orleans.

Community Standard: Then you returned to Cooper Union and became involved in printmaking. When did you produce your first etching?

Sage: In the fall of 1969. It was a hansom in the Park, very awkwardly drawn on a copper plate.

Phillip Sage

“My father said, ‘You know artists starve.’”

Community Standard: When did you decide to become a printmaker?

Sage: At one time I wanted to be a big-time New York art director, a designer … all that stuff, but I didn't really give a damn for it after I went back to Cooper. I was a student under Charles Klabunde, a very, very fine printmaker. I studied with him two years and completely changed all my ambitions. I got tired of doing design and drawing for someone else (which I was doing in my part-time business). I got tired of selling a product I didn't believe in. I said, “To hell with it. I'm going back into fine arts, and stick with etching.”

Community Standard: You came here in the fall of '71. How did you become an established artist?

Sage: I met William Groves, a retired actuary, who helped me out considerably when I first moved here. He gave me very reasonable studio space on Decatur Street, and eventually I lived there for four months because I couldn't afford anything else.

In November of 1972 I just took a big gamble and borrowed money to buy a house. And then everything turned around … I started to sell prints in the fall of '72. They really started to move. I came out with Buggy Man and Watermelon Man. Watermelon Man seemed to spark a big interest. In the spring of '73, I got my agent, Michael Alden, and the whole world turned around.

Community Standard: Lots of people buy your etchings as an investment. Watermelon Man is selling for as much as $600 now. How do you feel about your work's being so successful?

Sage: What can I say? I don't get any royalties, but it's a very flattering thing to find people willing to pay that kind of price considering what a short time I've been in New Orleans. It's very gratifying.

Community Standard: I understand that there has recently been some dispute over an etching you did entitled Preservation Hall because the owner of the establishment did not want you to use the name. What happened?

Sage: Our lawyers researched the matter and found that I can do an etching of a place such as Preservation Hall, and call it Preservation Hall. I'm not a competing business. Anyway, the owner cannot keep an artist from making an image of his establishment.

Community Standard: In what projects are you involved now?

Sage: I am currently supervising the printing of restrikes from plates by Knute Heldner. These are being distributed throughout the area by my agent. Also, I'm trying to get back into painting. I hope to have a one-man show toward the end of this year.

Phillip Sage

“I like to depict people doing things.”

Community Standard: Are you working on any new plates now?

Sage: I have four that I'm working on — the open-air vegetable shed at the French Market, a horse and carriage, Café du Monde, and one of Pat Garrett and the Posse (street musicians). I might also do the French Market Jazz Band if I get permission. I hope to do a large color etching for the 1975 Artists Biennial at the New Orleans Museum of Art and I'm also planning a series of four large color prints for the Bicentennial Celebration.

Community Standard: Your career shot ahead rather rapidly. How do you account for this?

Sage: I attribute a lot of my success to my agent. Michael Alden treats his artists exceedingly well. They come first with him. He took a gamble on me, and it's working out.

Another thing, a lot of people brand me a businessman artist. I guess I am a pretty good businessman. I tend to really relish working over figures and figuring things out economically. I attribute that to an economics background in college.

Community Standard: How do you decide what subjects to depict?

Sage: I try to keep from doing the stereotyped French Quarter tourist scenes. I like to depict people doing things… Like I want to do a plate soon of an all-night card game. The faces will show so much emotion and character! Things like that really get to me….

Community Standard: Why do you do mostly New Orleans subjects?

Sage: I live here. Ken Nahan said to me once, “I really like your work. Could you do Westerns for me?” I said “Sure! If I lived out in New Mexico I probably would, but I'm in New Orleans, so I'm doing New Orleans.”

I love New Orleans. It's Super City to me. It's treated me well. I enjoy it down here, I really do. I'm a displaced Yankee — a real Carpetbagger.